A Hot/Cool-System Analysis of Delay of Gratification: Dynamics of Willpower

Authors: Janet Metcalfe, Columbia University; Walter Mischel, Columbia University

Publication: Psychological Review

Year: 1999

Focus Area: Persuasion, Decision Making, Prevention, Emotion

Relevance: Willpower can be manipulated – both positively and negatively – when people make decisions. The hot-cold framework provides suggestions on the subtleties of willpower manipulation and suggests potential techniques and explanations to increase willpower.

Summary: How are people able to control their actions and feelings if their initial drive is “ruled by a pleasure principle, and largely indifferent to reason”? This paper describes a theoretical framework of hot and cool systems to explain the delay of gratification paradigm (and is limited in scope to this paradigm alone).

  • The ability of a child to sacrifice an immediate reward for a larger,  but delayed reward, has been shown to predict social and cognitive outcomes later in life, including SAT scores.
  • The authors propose that the “cool cognitive” system and the “hot emotional” system interact when willpower is used to overcome an immediate desire.
  • Control strategies include hiding the stimulus (desired object) or ignoring it, both of which decrease the intensity of the hot system. Alternatively, efforts to activate the cool system include distracting oneself, either with another object or internally.
  • Photographs of desired objects were far easier to resist than the object itself. Even telling oneself that a desired object (i.e. a piece of candy) is a photograph can increase the length of time one is able to resist.

Author Abstract: A 2-system framework is proposed for understanding the processes that enable – and undermine – self-control or “willpower” as exemplified in the delay of gratification paradigm. A cool, cognitive “know” system and a hot, emotional “go” system are postulated. The cool system is cognitive, emotionally neutral, contemplative, flexible, integrated, coherent, spatiotemporal, slow, episodic, and strategic. It is the seat of self-regulation and self-control. The hot system is the basis of emotionality, fears as well as passions – impulsive and reflexive – initially controlled by innate releasing stimuli (and, thus, literally under “stimulus control”); it is fundamental for emotional (classical) conditioning and undermines efforts at self-control. The balance between the hot and cool systems is determined by stress, developmental level, and the individual’s self-regulatory dynamics. The interactions between these systems allow explanation of findings on willpower from 3 decades of research.

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A Visceral Account of Addiction

Authors: George Loewenstein, Carnegie Mellon University

Publication: Getting Hooked: Rationality and Addiction (book)

Year: 1999

Focus Area: Prevention, Decision Making

Relevance: Victims of fraud are not victims of addiction, but the methods used to remind recovering addicts why they quit taking a drug could be applied to fraud prevention programs. In both cases, time diminishes the effect of an unpleasant experience and makes the possibility of relapsing (taking a drug again, or saying “yes” to a deal presented on the phone).

Summary: Addiction can be viewed as the overpowering of willpower by an immediate, visceral need that focuses attention on relieving suffering (in this case, the discomfort of not having the drug). This visceral need focuses attention both on this need as compared to other desires (hunger, fear) and in time (today’s need rather than tomorrow’s).

  • The motivation to use a drug is immediate, visceral and subject to situational cues. The motivation to not use a drug is long-term, cerebral, and must overcome the situations that inspire cravings. These motivations are misaligned, unfortunately, making it difficult to avoid using a drug – even when a person genuinely wants to quit or avoid a relapse.
  • Non-addicts underestimate the visceral power of an addiction, and even people using drugs (including cigarettes) underestimate the hold that the drug has on them – smokers tend to predict that they will smoke less in the future, although this generally fails to come true.
  • Memory of pain (in this case, the pain of a craving) is fleeting, and as a result, has weak influence as a disincentive against decisions made in the heat of the moment.

Author Abstract: In the past, addiction has been viewed as a sui generis phenomenon (Baker 1988). Recent theories of addiction, however, draw implicit or explicit parallels between addiction and a wide range of other behavioral phenomena. The “disease theory,” for example, highlights similarities between addiction and infectious disease (e.g., Frawley [1988], Vaillant [1983]). Becker and Murphy’s rational-choice model of addiction draws a parallel between drug addictions and “endogenous taste” phenomena, such as listening to classical music to attempt to acquire a taste for it, in which current consumption affects the utility of future consumption (Becker and Murphy 1988). Herrnstein and Prelec’s “garden path” theory sees addiction as analogous to bad habits, such as workaholism or compulsive lying, that can be acquired gradually due to a failure to notice a deterioration in one’s conduct or situation (Herrnstein and Prelec 1992).

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Beyond Valence: Toward a Model of Emotion-Specific Influences on Judgement and Choice

Authors: Jennifer S. Lerner, Carnegie Mellon University and UCLA; Dacher Keltner, UC Berkeley

Publication: Cognition and Emotion

Year: 2000

Focus Area: Emotion, Decision Making, Risk, Profile, Prevention

Relevance: Personality traits, namely a tendency towards fear or anger, can influence risk assessment. People who characteristically tend toward anger make riskier decisions. However, strategies that make people aware of their thought process as they judge risk can diminish the influence of emotion on risk assessment.

Summary: The effects of positive and negative moods on decision making have been studied, but this research studies the differences in impact between two kinds of negative mood – anger and fear – on risk assessment.

  • Valence studies – those that look simply at positive or negative mood – would predict that angry people and fearful people would have similar responses in a risk assessment test. However, this study found that the two emotions elicit different assessments of risk, even though they are both negative moods.
  • Anger – defined by certainty and a sense of individual control – leads people to make fairly optimistic risk assessments. Fear – defined by uncertainty and lack of control – leads people to make pessimistic assessments about risk.
  • This study examined people who were temperamentally prone to anger or fear – it did not study the effect on risk assessment of individual and discrete episodes of anger or fear. Systematically angry people tend to lead riskier lives than people who are characterized by fearful personalities.
  • Although people may rely on emotions to make decisions, when they are made aware of their thought processes or the consequences of their decisions, they may rely less on their comfortable appraisal tendencies.

Author Abstract: Most theories of affective influences on judgement and choice take a valence-based approach, contrasting the effects of positive versus negative feeling states. These approaches have not specified if and when distinct emotions of the same valence have different effects on judgement. In this article, we propose a model of emotion-specific influences on judgement and choice. We posit that each emotion is defined by a tendency to perceive new events and objects in ways that are consistent with the original cognitive-appraisal dimensions of the emotion. To pit the valence and appraisal-tendency approaches against one another, we present a study that addresses whether two emotions of the same valence but differing appraisals – anger and fear – relate in different ways to risk perception. Consistent with the appraisal-tendency hypothesis, fearful people made pessimistic judgements of future events whereas angry people made optimistic judgements. In the Discussion we expand the proposed model and review evidence supporting two social moderators of appraisal-tendency processes.

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Time-Inconsistent Preferences and Consumer Self-Control

Authors: Stephen J. Hoch, University of Chicago; George F. Loewenstein, University of Chicago

Publication: Journal of Consumer Research

Year: 1991

Focus Area: Persuasion, Decision Making, Prevention

Relevance: Fraudsters are essentially selling a product and often rely upon impulsive behavior to engage their target in the purchase (or a step toward purchasing, like agreeing to receive mailed information). This paper provides analysis of the interaction between desire and willpower, with explanations of some strategies that people use to avoid making impulsive decisions.

Summary: Certain situations can elicit “extreme impatience” in consumers who would otherwise make evenhanded judgments of the benefits and costs of a given purchase.

  • Time-inconsistent choices are those that would have been made differently if “contemplated from a removed, dispassionate perspective.” Self-control is a struggle between desire and willpower, and successful self control can be achieved by reducing desire or overcoming desire through strong willpower.
  • Proximity of a desired object – either physically or in time – increases desire and impatience for that object.
  • Consumers can reduce desire by distancing themselves from the object of their desire. Other strategies include avoiding situations in which they make impulsive decisions, delaying a decision, distracting themselves, or substituting another, smaller reward.
  • Consumers can increase willpower by committing themselves to a behavior other than the one they desire; for example, leaving credit cards at home to prevent impulse purchases. People also think about the benefits of delaying an impulse, add up the accumulated costs of a series of decisions, appeal to a higher power, and reflect on regret and guilt as tools – both conscious and subconscious – to increase willpower.

Author Abstract: Why do consumers sometimes act against their own better judgment, engaging in behavior that is often regretted after the fact and that would have been rejected with adequate forethought? More generally, how do consumers attempt to maintain self-control in the face of time-inconsistent preferences? This article addresses consumer impatience by developing a decision-theoretic model based on reference points. The model explains how and why consumers experience sudden increases in desire for a produce, increases that can result in the temporary overriding of long-term preferences. Tactics that consumers can use to control their own behavior are also discussed. Consumer self-control is framed as a struggle between two psychological forces, desire and willpower. Finally, two general classes of self-control strategies are described: those that directly reduce desire, and those that overcome desire through willpower.

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How to Make Better Choices

Authors: Kate Douglas, Dan Jones

Publication: New Scientist

Year: 2007

Focus Area: Decision Making, Prevention

Relevance: This article draws from scientific research to provide a brief introduction to factors that influence decision making in everyday life.

Summary: Everyday decision making draws on emotion and rational (cognitive) thought. Recent research from psychologists and neuroscientists can provide insight into these processes and yield ten pointers to help people make better decisions and feel happier about the results of their choice.

  • In a number of cases, additional information, time or options only made decision making more difficult.
  • Emotions have a variety of influences on decision making. For example, anger can lead to riskier choices, while disgust can promote caution.
  • This article includes explanations in layman’s terms of a number of important psychological terms, including framing, loss aversion, affective forecasting and confirmation bias.

Author Abstract: This article looks at the science behind being able to make better decisions. The author outlines several concepts designed to help you make better decisions. These concepts include going with your gut instinct, considering your emotions, staying focused on the topic, not getting upset over small inconveniences, taking a different perspective, being aware of social pressure and having someone else make the decision for you.

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Negotiating with Yourself and Losing: Making Decisions with Competing Internal Preferences

Authors: Max H. Bazerman, Northwestern University; Anne E. Tenbrunsel, University of Notre Dame; Kimberly Wade-Benzoni, Northwestern University

Publication: Academy of Management Review

Year: 1998

Focus Area: Prevention, Decision Making, Emotion

Relevance: Enabling people to make good decisions and avoid fraud can involve listening to both one’s rational thoughts (the should self) and intuitive feelings (the want self).

Summary: This article argues that an individual’s internal struggle between what he wants to do and what he thinks he should do can be thought of as taking place between the “want self” and the “should self.” Want is conceptualized as emotional, affective, impulsive and hot headed, while should is rational, cognitive, thoughtful and cool headed.

  • The want self dominates at the moment of decision making.
  • The want self tends to dominate when deciding on a single option. Single options reduce the need to justify the decision, which leads to less rational and more emotional decision making. The need to justify a decision activates the should self.
  • The authors caution that the want self is not always wrong: a disagreement among the two selves “signals the need to think harder about the the information provided by each of the two selves.” In particular, the want self may process information that is difficult to articulate but nonetheless important; in other words, hunches and gut feelings should not necessarily be ignored.
  • Negotiating and striking a deal with the want self can be particularly important because the want self can simply override the should self at the moment of decision making.

Author Abstract: The field of organizational behavior includes the study of how individuals organize and manage conflict among themselves. Less visible has been the study of conflicts occurring within individuals. We propose that one form of intrapersonal conflict is the result of tension between what people want to do versus what they think they should do. We argue that this want/should distinction helps to explain the “multiple-selves” phenomenon and a recently discovered group of preference reversals noted in behavioral decision and organizational behavior research. We develop a history of knowledge on intrapersonal conflict, discuss how conflicts between what one wants to do and what one should do result in inconsistent behavior, connect this pattern of inconsistency to recent literature on joint versus separate preference reversals, and outline prescriptions for the management of intrapersonal conflict.

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Self-efficacy: Toward a Unifying Theory of Behavior Change

Authors: Albert Bandura, Stanford University

Publication: Psychological Review

Year: 1977

Focus Area: Prevention, Decision Making

Relevance: Performing tasks – rather than watching others perform them – was more effective in increasing self-efficacy and helping people overcome a phobia. Prevention programs may be able to take advantage of this technique to help people take action to prevent fraud. For example, some studies show that people can identify a scam phone call and know that they should hang up, but cannot get themselves to follow through on that action in the moment.

Summary: Bandura addresses an apparent conflict in behavior change – whether change happens through decisions (cognitive processes) or through repetition of actions (procedures). Bandura proposes that these two methods are part of a common mechanism – that cognitive processes lead to change, but that actions are necessary to start those cognitive processes.

• Self-efficacy is a person’s own beliefs about their ability to do a task or activity. A person’s self-efficacy may not reflect their actual ability in that specific realm. Self-efficacy is more focused than self-esteem or confidence, which are broader terms that refer to beliefs about self-worth and strength of belief, respectively.
• This study tested the ability of snake phobics to overcome their fear of snakes through two different therapeutic methods: one in which the subject performed “progressively more threatening interactions with a boa constrictor”, and one in which the subject watched a therapist perform those tasks. There was also a control group that had no treatment.
• The subjects who performed the tasks themselves had better self-efficacy when faced with snakes in a follow-up test. They were also able to generalize this self-efficacy to other kinds of snakes and other situations that had not been part of the therapy.

Author Abstract: The present article presents an integrative theoretical framework to explain and to predict psychological changes achieved by different modes of treatment. This theory states that psychological procedures, whatever their form, alter the level and strength of self-efficacy. It is hypothesized that expectations of personal efficacy determine whether coping behavior will be initiated, how much effort will be expended, and how long it will be sustained in the face of obstacles and aversive experiences. Persistence in activities that are subjectively threatening but in fact relatively safe produces, through experiences of mastery, further enhancement of self-efficacy and corresponding reductions in defensive behavior. In the proposed model, expectations of personal efficacy are derived from four principal sources of information: performance accomplishments, vicarious experience, verbal persuasion, and physiological states. The more dependable the experiential sources, the greater are the changes in perceived self-efficacy. A number of factors are identified as influencing the cognitive processing of efficacy information arising from enactive, vicarious, exhortative, and emotive sources. The differential power of diverse therapeutic procedures in analyzed in terms of the postulated cognitive mechanism of operation. Findings are reported from microanalyses of enactive, vicarious, and emotive of treatment that support the hypothesized relationship between perceived self-efficacy and behavioral change. Possible directions for further research are discussed.

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